A career behind the camera begins at these elite institutions — from USC to NYU — even as COVID-19 complicates curricula.
With both entertainment and higher education deeply impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown, top film schools across the U.S. spent the summer break reassessing established curricula. Many programs are moving classes completely online to comply with local and state health restrictions (student films will mostly be shot on cellphones and star family members and roommates). Colleges, universities and conservatories alike are filling in the gaps in their promised programs with Zoom lectures from top talents like Taika Waititi and Spike Lee, and are hoping to hold makeup physical production classes over the spring and summer breaks in 2021, assuming the world returns to relative normality by then.
But no matter how they are handling the pandemic, all of The Hollywood Reporter’s top film programs are committed to ensuring their graduates will be ready for a career in Hollywood — whatever it may look like. Whether it’s adding new virtual and augmented reality labs (like the University of California Los Angeles), or offering more courses in Black film theory (USC, Chapman, CalArts and UT Austin are among the schools to do so), these programs aim to evolve with the industry and educate the storytellers and executives who will shape the future of entertainment — even if that future is currently on hold.
After much turnover in the dean’s office, Susan Ruskin took over the reins of the famed conservatory just in time for The American Film Institute’s 50th anniversary and a major year of awards and endowments. She replaces Richard Gladstein, Ruskin who stepped in after Jan Schuette left in 2016. The school swept the narrative category at last year’s Student Academy Awards, picking up the gold, silver and bronze honors, and had a similar showing at the DGA Student Awards, winning three of its four eligible categories. Alums and industry professionals note that the grad-student-focused conservatory guarantees students the opportunity to make their own films, with plenty of support. Alum Max Barbakow, whose Sundance feature Palm Springs sold to Neon/Hulu for a record-setting sum in Park City, says the conservatory excels at “empowering young filmmakers to make stuff,” adding that “the opportunity to dive in and make three substantial short films in my first year was undoubtedly the boon of the AFI experience.” Its strong alumni network includes veteran helmer Mimi Leder and Midsommar director Ari Aster, and, thanks to a $3 million gift from trustee emeritus Lawrence Herbert, the school plans to boost alums with a new physical Alumni Center and a digital portal, called AFI Backlot, designed to expand the center’s global reach to alumni. Even by oft-inflated film school standards, AFI offers an expensive education but hopes to continue to offset some tuition and production costs with a new $15,000 Bridges/Larson Production Award and the T.R. Paul Family Foundation Scholarship, and has seen an overall increase in gifts to its general scholarship fund, including installments from Bob Daly, Alan Horn and David Geffen.
TUITION $63,575 to $65,800 grad
ALUMNI David Lynch, Ari Aster, Julie Dash
While most film schools focus on the creative and technical side of filmmaking, few cater to students looking to become execs or producers. USC’s renowned School of Cinematic Arts, which encompasses roughly 1,000 undergraduates and 700 grads, focuses on both disciplines, with a track record to prove it. SCA boasts both Marvel movie director Ryan Coogler and head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige as alums. In the last school year, SCA established the John H. Mitchell Endowment for the Business of Entertainment chair — William Morris agency alum Bonnie Chi is the inaugural holder — and the school’s Peter Stark producing program celebrated its 40th anniversary with past grads who include UTA co-president David Kramer. “Rely on the talent and insights of your peers, the people you trust and respect,” says Nahnatchka Khan, the creative force behind Fresh Off the Boat and Always Be My Maybe, on the lessons she learned at SCA. “Keep in close contact with them, Khan keep it real, and you will all lift each other up and hit new heights together.” As Hollywood tries to uproot entrenched systems of racism and sexism, the school has made a new class a requirement for all students: Visions of Diversity in the Cinematic Arts, which looks at cinema and television history through the lenses of equality and inclusion.
TUITION $59,260 undergraduate;$39,900 grad
ALUMNI Robert Zemeckis, Doug Liman, Shonda Rhimes
After an online spring semester of Zoom calls with auteurs like Taika Waititi and Darren Aronofsky, New York University students will partially return to campus this fall with a hybrid approach, and international and L.A. students will have the option to study at one of its global network of campuses. In addition to welcoming Oscar-winning producer Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love) and nominated sound mixer Tod Maitland (Joker) to its graduate school faculty, its undergrad program has added classes in storytelling with a modern twist (“Aristotle to Beyoncé and Beyond”) and bulked up on its state-of-the-art equipment with new Alexa Mini cameras. Spike Lee, who is a professor at the school, also established a production fund that gives annual grants to student filmmakers, and the newly launched Black Family Film Prize awards $150,000 to grad students whose film projects exemplify innovation in story, style and tone. Says Watchmen producer Tiffany Chung: “My years at NYU have accompanied me beyond graduation as I continue to grow and be inspired by my peers, both personally and professionally, in the collaborative world of storytelling.”
TUITION $60,282 undergrad; $65,926 grad
ALUMNI Martin Scorsese, Damon Lindelof, Nia DaCosta
The Ivy League MFA program, which will start this fall with a mix of online and in-person classes, will also return with a new commitment to diversity, inclusion and safe-space initiatives, focusing on the ways in which racism, privilege and inequity impact its community through facilitated discussion workshops. With programs for screenwriting-directing, creative producing and a growing emphasis on the production side, Columbia has been the starting ground for star alumni like Walt Disney Animation chief creative officer and Frozen writer-director Jennifer Lee, who says she chose the school “because it takes a holistic approach — you write, direct, edit, act and produce before specializing. I gained skills to complete every script I could imagine and learned the power of rewriting. In directing, emotion and character drove every shot and frame; in producing, I found the power of collaboration — it truly was everything I dreamt of and more.”
TUITION $62,912 grad
ALUMNI Kathryn Bigelow, Simon Kinberg, James Mangold
Amid the box office shutdown, UCLA alum Gina Prince-Bythewood entertained the self-isolating masses with her Netflix feature The Old Guard, which was viewed by 72 million subscribers in its first four weeks, according to the streamer. At 19, the filmmaker was at first rejected from the school but wrote a letter to its then-head, Teri Schwartz. “Two days later, she called me and told me she read my letter and I was in,” says Prince-Bythewood. “She literally changed the trajectory of my life.” The school will educate the next generation of Prince-Bythewoods with the new Forever Sunny Directing Scholarship, which provides the female recipient with support for four years to cover tuition and fees, as well as up to $50,000 to cover production costs on the recipient’s thesis film. The Department of Film, Television and Digital Media also boasts diversity among its ranks, with the majority of both the studentbody (60 percent) and faculty (65 percent) being nonwhite. While the new school year begins under the leadership of interim dean Brian Kite, UCLA is looking to fill its top administrative spot, after Schwartz stepped down as dean a year ago.
TUITION $27,712 undergrad, in-state; $57,466 undergrad, out-of-state; $17,486 grad, in-state;$32,588 grad, out-of-state
ALUMNI Frank Marshall, Ava DuVernay, Marielle Heller
Actively recruiting students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts is launching a scholarship fund that will provide up to 10 full scholarships per year for underrepresented young men and women from the local community. Additionally, a mentorship program is set to launch in 2021 that will see the film school partner with L.A. and Orange County high schools and the nonprofit College Access Partnership. Faculty additions include dean Stephen Galloway (former THR executive editor), as well as nine Black female professors who will teach across the school’s curriculum, which includes such new offerings as Black Cinema and Fake News. Justin Simien (Dear White People) says an influential course he took as a student was Acting for Non-Actors. “[Instructor] Joel [Moffett] spent the first few classes teaching us why Star Wars was actually about self-doubt and how to similarly drill down to the theme of any story,” says Simien, who adds: “We eventually did scene work, but only after understanding that what we were actually learning was how to make creative choices driven by what we felt the story was ultimately about.”
TUITION $56,830 undergrad; $44,240 to $56,830 grad
ALUMNI Matt and Ross Duffer, Carlos López Estrada
As construction continues on its Howard B. Fitzpatrick Pavilion, which will house teaching spaces, an AR/VR area and a state-of-the-art theater, LMU also has formally created five specializations in its MFA in film and television program: creative producing, directing fiction, directing nonfiction, cinematography and editing (plans to launch a new International Documentary minor based in Germany were put on hold, however). Classes are scheduled to return entirely online this fall, including a cross-disciplinary elective pairing animation students with screenwriting students and English majors to encourage side-by-side development of story ideas. Plus, with nine new full-time faculty hires (including four people of color), the expansion under new dean Peggy Rajski continues. Says Brian Helgeland, Oscar-winning writer of L.A. Confidential: “I learned how to write at LMU — first of all, by having it expected of me, and secondly, by having instructors with real industry writing experience. It was a film school that took the mystery out of film and replaced it with the practical, the craft. That’s how I learned.”
TUITION $52,553 undergrad; $20,775 to $33,240 grad
ALUMNI Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games), Jim Toth (Head of content acquisitions at Quibi), Patricia Whitcher (Captain Marvel, producer)
As expected with a school that was founded by Walt Disney, CalArts leads in animation education. Since the creation of the best animated feature Oscar category in 2001, 12 of the 19 winning films were directed by CalArts alums. Grad Bruce Wayne Smith co-directed the recent Oscar-winning short Hair Love; the school is now investing in new classes about animation and identity like Afro-Centric Character Design in its Character Animation Program. Looking outside the scope of traditional animation, CalArts has also brought on Pulitzer winner and alum Ann Telnaes to teach Commentary Through Cartoons.
TUITION $52,850 undergrad; $52,850 grad
ALUMNI Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground)
Nestled in picturesque Boston’s Back Bay, the liberal arts college has a globe-spanning footprint with the one-year-old Paris College of Art film program as well as the well-established 107,000-square-foot L.A. outpost on Sunset Boulevard. The Beantown campus, which serves most of the 1,700 undergrad and grad visual and media arts students, features an Emerging Media Lab that includes AR and VR suites as well as 3D modeling and animation. On the diversity front, the program has a nearly 50-50 male-female student ratio, with 24.2 percent of the Visual & Media Arts student body being persons of color (3.5 percent are Black), according to fall 2019 data. In 2018, Emerson announced the Norman Lear Scholarship Fund, which provides a four-year scholarship to students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds. The first recipient, Worlanyo Mensah (2023), met Lear at his home in Los Angeles in September. Faculty comprises 11 percent persons of color, with 4 percent being Black (numbers are expected to increase for the 2020 academic year but are not complete by press time). Perhaps the biggest draw for prospective students is the active Emerson-Hollywood network. “I’ve hired Emerson interns at every job I’ve ever been at,” says MGM film group president Pam Abdy. “I’m just a real advocate for the school.”
TUITION $50,240 undergrad; $1,296 grad, per credit
ALUMNI Jay Leno, Richard LaGravenese, Adele Lim (screenwriter, Crazy Rich Asians)
The alma mater of Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill— who have collaborated on hits like Vice Principals and Eastbound & Down — UNCSA is a small creative and performing arts conservatory that alum Vera Herbert, a co-executive producer on This Is Us, says “emulates a Hollywood studio system in producing student films, and from my first year I learned how to pitch, develop, take notes, and work with both my peers and the faculty to bring a project to fruition — and experience all the ups and downs that come with that.” With training in drama, film, dance, music, design and production, and new offerings of motion-hand-face-capture, immersive VFX entertainment and effects technologies, the school, which plans to return with hybrid classes, is on the cutting edge of technology, launching an immersive storytelling residency in its technology lab last fall. Last year also marked UNCSA’s first freshman filmmaking school class that was predominantly female, with a focus on creating a pipeline of women into the entertainment industry.
TUITION $6,497 undergrad, in-state; $23,040 undergrad, out-of-state; $9,169 grad, in-state; $23,203 grad,out-of-state
ALUMNI directors Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud), Jeff Nichols (Loving)
Between its facilities (including a motion-capture studio and one of the largest greenscreens outside Hollywood), its TV writers room workshop class (which culminates in a student-written series shopped to major networks) and an advanced producing class taught by alum Matthew McConaughey, UT has taken innovative approaches to film education. “RTF (Radio-Television-Film) helped me find my voice,” says WME partner and Advisory Council member Kevin Shivers, who also cites the recent hires of Ileana Sosa, Alex Rivera, Sarah Seulki Oh and Adrien Sebro as new additions “to a talented and diverse faculty to create an empowering and creative experience.”
TUITION $10,946 undergrad, in-state; $38,748 undergrad, out-of-state; $9,996 to $10,882 grad, in-state;$18,816 to $20,310 grad, out-of-state
ALUMNI Wes Anderson, Renée Zellweger, Mark and Jay Duplass
In addition to its new 16,000-square-foot expansion of its Center for Film Studies, the past year saw the launch of the Wesleyan Documentary Project, an initiative to teach, support and produce nonfiction film and video to students graduating into an industry that is experiencing a nonfiction boom. Doc producer Sadia Shepard (The September Issue) will be joining the faculty this fall, while recent classes included Oscilloscope co-founder David Laub teaching “The Art and Business of Contemporary Film” and New York Times critic A.O. Scott tackling Italian Cinema.
TUITION $69,704 to $71,764 undergrad
ALUMNI Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner, Lin-Manuel Miranda
While the Palo Alto university offers an expanding film and media studies major — with lessons on film language, genre, video production and visual and narrative structures — it is known for its exclusive MFA in documentary film and video production program, which is capped at eight students annually. In their second year of the program, students produce a 15- to 20-minute thesis film on a pressing social issue, some of which have gone on to screen at Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca. The school is on track to return for some in-person classes this year and, after voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, says actionable plans for justice and equality issues are forthcoming.
TUITION $55,473 undergrad; $54,315 grad
ALUMNI Lisa Joy (Westworld co-creator), Sarah Naftalis (writer, FX’s What We Do in the Shadows), Ramona Diaz (Imelda)
Columbia College will see changes to its faculty with filmmaker Thelma Vickroy starting as a new chair and cinematographer Robert Edgecomb joining as an assistant professor of photography. The school will also launch its new BA in Film and Television program — which encourages cross-pollination between the two mediums — while offering online, face-to-face and hybrid classes, with assignments redesigned to incorporate social distancing, smaller crews and remote production. Says alum Carl Seaton (Batwoman, Chicago PD): “I constantly run into people in different places who go, ‘I went to Columbia,’ and it’s a constant thread. We are here to work, we’re striving for excellence.”
TUITION $27,142 tuition only
ALUMNI Lena Waithe, George Tillman Jr., Christian Sprenger (cinematographer, Atlanta)
This East Coast institution has trained Hollywood’s old guard, like Jim Gianopulos, as well as creatives shaking up the industry, like Uncut Gems helmers Josh and Benny Safdie. While the school is situated far from entertainment hubs, it re-creates the business of content creation on campus with courses like Hothouse Productions, a student-run production banner that shoots PSAs and short documentaries for local nonprofits and TV stations. The school also boasts a revamped MFA in screenwriting, which will see students take a fourth semester in Los Angeles.
TUITION $56,854 undergrad; $57,686 grad
ALUMNI Jennifer Getzinger (director, Westworld) Bonnie Hammer, Bonnie Arnold
After launching a new BFA film curriculum last year offering hands-on experience starting freshman year, Syracuse’s College of Visual and Performing Arts has added essay film, script analysis and sci-fi courses, along with a new film history survey class that will take an anti-sexist, anti-racist and international approach to cinema history from the 1960s to today. With classes planned for in-person and hybrid instruction, its film program, the Newhouse School (Syracuse divides up performing arts and film disciplines), will continue to expand its offerings in TV, radio, podcasting, VFX, production design and entrepreneurship with an emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity. Pixar president Jim Morris credits the animation courses he took at Syracuse for setting him on his path: “The technology then was stone age compared to what we do at Pixar now, but the soul of creating the illusion of life has never changed.”
TUITION $54,270 undergrad; $30,294 grad
ALUMNI Dan Silver (Disney+), Danny Zuker, Mike Laskersony (VFX supervisor)
At the Roy H. Park School of Communications, student-run production company Park Productions has been delivering client-driven materials like local TV ads and PSAs for a half decade, allowing students to put their production and story skills to work. Newer additions at the-school include an MBA program in Entertainment and Media Management and a collaboration with Ithaca’s business school, as well as West African filmmaker Idrissou Mora-Kpai joining the faculty. Says One Day at a Time writer and executive producer Mike Royce: “Ithaca taught me that, while it was fine to idolize Spielberg, it was even better to graduate knowing how to be me.”
TUITION $46,610 undergrad; starting at $10,500 grad
ALUMNI David Boreanaz, Liz Tigelaar (showrunner, Little Fires Everywhere)
This Pasadena-based program, which has a three-track focus on directing, editing and cinematography, is known for educating blockbuster helmers like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay, but the film school offers more than just technical wizardry by taking advantage of ArtCenter’s robust advertising and design programs. A cross-curriculum class, Media Maker’s Lab, sees students create a semester-long advertising agency, taking a note from alum Bay, who got his start directing commercials before graduating to giant robots. “It was those courses that enabled me to develop my own personal style and point of view,” says Snyder, who is also a board of trustees member, of his BFA production classes. “The most important lesson I learned was to value your own unique perspective.”
TUITION $45,776 undergrad; $48,380 grad
ALUMNI Don Burgess (cinematographer, Aquaman), Ericson Core (director, Togo), Tarsem Singh (director, The Fall)
SF State was founded in the ’60s with an emphasis on political activism and experimental filmmaking, an ethos that can be seen in its contemporary coursework, with classes like Experimental Documentary. The program, which has been under the direction of noted film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu for a year, outlines an 18-point statement of values surrounding “diversity, equity and inclusion” (point 18 reads: “Down with censorship!”). The school recently named endowed chairs in both African American Cinema and Social Justice Fiction Filmmaking — Artel Great and Mayuran Tiruchelvam, respectively.
TUITION $7,440 undergrad; $8,704 grad
ALUMNI Annette Bening, Lisa Cholodenko, Steven Zaillian
Amid the renewed call for diversity and Black representation, Florida State established a Diverse Voices in Cinema grant this year for underrepresented film school alumni who seek to overcome injustice through cinematic storytelling. It will include a $10,000 production grant, a full production equipment package, access to postproduction facilities, distribution consultation and a social media campaign. The university has also set up an Equality Scholarship to support first-year students of color, as well as faculty and staff workshop initiatives and annual diversity events. Though classes are set to resume fully in person this fall, FSU will introduce a Real Solutions for Real-Time Filmmaking curriculum that teaches students how to navigate virtual filmmaking with a focus on the innovative technology for previsualization of animated and live-action films. “At the end of the day, it’s the stories that matter, and FSU is empowering filmmakers to tell the stories they want to tell,” says Race to Witch Mountain writer Matt Lopez of his experience at the college, which counts Moonlight helmer Barry Jenkins as its star pupil.
TUITION $7,328 undergrad, in-state; $24,517 undergrad, out-of-state; $22,619 grad, in-state; $51,032 grad, out-of-state
ALUMNI Stephen Broussard (Marvel Studios vp production and development), James Laxton (cinematographer, If Beale Street Could Talk), Lauren Miller Rogen (director, Like Father)
Accounting for Hollywood’s ever-evolving definition of content, Ringling has introduced a new emphasis under its BFA film program: Branded Entertainment. The curriculum will focus on creating more advertorial content as a way to provide a faster track to the director’s chair than the traditional film or television career path. Last year, the Florida school finished construction on its 36,000-square-foot Studio Labs complex, which includes five soundstages, multiple edit suites, dubbing and Foley stages, and a color-correct theater, along with traditional classrooms. And with the complex comes the likes of Beau Bridges, Kevin Smith and Dylan McDermott as visiting film-makers, which have long been part of the program. “Two big experiences were getting to be in the edit room with Werner Herzog and taking a lighting workshop with [Inception cinematographer] Wally Pfister,” says alum Jason Letkiewicz, who is the senior writer and producer on this year’s Emmys broadcast. “Herzog changed the way I think about storytelling, and Wally opened my eyes to so many new possibilities on set.”
TUITION $45,130 undergrad
ALUMNI editor Andrew Halley
As one of the premier fine art schools in the country, this Providence mainstay boasts an avant-garde student body spanning all mediums (think David Byrne, who attended in the early ’70s). The 2019-20 student body reflects the college’s commitment to diversity, with 33 percent domestic students of color, including 5 percent Black (the 37 percent international students are not broken out by race). Likewise, 19 percent of the domestic faculty is of color, while 5 percent is Black (7 percent hail from abroad). Although many colleges are forgoing face-to-face instruction due to COVID-19, RISD plans to keep its upcoming core studio and shop-based courses in person with expanded spaces to ensure safe social distancing (courses that don’t require hands-on technique will be offered remotely or in a hybrid version). That’s a huge plus for the program, whose graduates have excelled in the field of animation in recent years.
TUITION $53,820 undergrad
ALUMNI Gus Van Sant, Seth MacFarlane, Martha Coolidge
SCAD’s signature event, the annual Savannah Film Festival with its big-name attendees and awards circuit influence, is going virtual from Oct. 23-31 because of the pandemic, while the school will continue (largely online) with a new curriculum, led by its Collaborative Experiences in the School of Entertainment Arts class, where students from different film specializations work together start-to-finish on a piece of content. “The time I spent in Savannah fully immersed in a creative community and constantly making stuff was probably the most valuable experience in my life,” says producer Jett Steiger (Super Dark Times). “Filmmaking is a team sport, and the only way you can really learn how to do it is to find a group of people you trust and go make something — SCAD gave me that opportunity over and over again.” Those opportunities will be expanded more than ever this year after SCAD recently created 15 endowed scholarships for incoming and current Black students.
TUITION $37,575 undergrad; $38,475 grad
ALUMNI DeRon Horton (actor, Dear White People), Steven Walker, Q. Manning and Peter Yoder (founders of digital product design agency Rocksauce Studios)
While it’s not in L.A. or NYC, DePaul’s Chicago campus offers entry into another of the nation’s entertainment hubs: If screenwriting and production students want to get serious about comedy, the school offers a degree program in conjunction with the famed Second City theater, which boasts a who’s who of comedy alums, including Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, Jordan Peele and Stephen Colbert. And for the practical production curriculum, DePaul students learn while working on soundstages at Cinespace Chicago, a busy production facility that has played host to everything from Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise to FX’s Fargo and Fox’s Empire. “We were encouraged to make things as often as possible (especially outside of class), and that’s exactly what I did,” says alum Daniel Willis, director on Grey’s Anatomy and The Black List. “When I left DePaul, I had material that I could show, and those work samples have opened many doors for me over the years.”
TUITION $40,511 undergrad; $20,760 to $31,140 grad
ALUMNI Kevin McGrail (producer, LeBron James' The Shop), Art O’Leary (editor, Deadliest Catch), Brian Lannin (cinematographer, High Maintenance)
This state school offers a cost-effective education that has the added value of being Los Angelesadjacent. And thanks to a grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the department of cinema and television is finishing a three-year cycle of updating production facilities, which includes new camera, sound and lighting equipment. Curriculum additions include a dedicated documentary production program, while extracurricular adds include a gallery devoted to the art of film posters, an upgraded script library and a public screening series that centers on 21st century LGBTQ films and rock ’n’ roll fare.
TUITION $7,012 undergrad; $8,446 grad
ALUMNI Glenn S. Gainor (head of physical production at Screen Gems), Ami Cohen (executive director of television at Lionsgate), John Hampian (vp physical production at Lucasfilm)